Saturday was the Protest against Divisiveness with @connectionarts. It really was not a protest, but more of an installation. The event was to draw attention to the need for unity and collaboration.
Each model was able to pick their own slogan. I picked “Human Diversity.” I think this speaks to the need to value disability and that the notion of one standard body is a myth. Additionally, difference makes us stronger as a society.
The event offered an opportunity for onlookers to better understand why folks would be compelled to participate in body painting. My friend @elisabethalicee was my artist. (There were more models than artists.) I think she did a great job. The installation took place in time square and there was a mile long parade after to the flat iron building.
This was a very different experience than the other two events I have participated in. There was a lot more media. Folks in Times Square were a lot more vocal and sometimes rude. The day overall was great. However, I did end up putting clothes on part way through the parade, because I was at the back end of the parade and at points felt unsafe.
Overall, the experience was great and gave me a lot to think about. Another cool feature of yesterday is I have done enough body painting that I now know some folks from the past. Additionally, I met a really cool fellow disabled woman, she and I were steadfast in the feeling that representation matters.
I am so pleased Human Connection Arts is in my life.
Samantha Walsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology. She also works in the Not-For-Profit Sector.
On the weekend I went to @abilities_expo for work. It’s a trade show of disability related services and products. A company called wheelchair88 was showing a standing wheelchair. It was a manual wheelchair you could lock then move the wheelchair into a standing position. You can’t move once you are standing.
Thoughts on standing straight from someone who has never stood straight…
I forget how old I was when I stopped thinking I would be more beautiful if I was standing. I know I was older than 20, but younger than 25.
I forget how old I was when I stopped thinking I would be more powerful if I could meet someone’s eye. It was older than 25, but younger than 33.
I know as a child if asked to draw a picture of myself, I would draw a standing person. I did this till I was 6 or 7. After that I often drew people using wheelchairs, but would still draw myself standing.
I know by grade 4 I started drawing pictures of me using a wheelchair, because I started playing wheelchair basketball and often drew about that for school.
When I was young I had lots of surgery and different interventions so I could stand and walk. It’s interesting that the mark of success for doctors and therapists was always that I could hobble or shuffle. Standing would be an all encompassing lactic acid filled experience.
I am often surprised it is still the gold standard. Facebook and YouTube videos depicting folks with disabilities who vowed to walk to get diplomas; walk down isles; stand for first dances. I have adult friends whose parents refused them wheelchairs. In turn they have internalized that standing, walking, shuffling is best.
A wheelchair to me offers liberty and a stable fast painless way to move. Even with all this I was seduced by the opportunity to stand straight. I picked an outfit I was curious about seeing standing. I compelled a coworker to take pictures.
Standing felt unnatural. My head was too high. My legs don’t go straight the brace had to force them. My spine curves from sitting so it hurt. To me the social significance of standing comes from a culture that privileges a specific kind of body. I feel grateful I no longer understand my own posture as inferior.
Today was interesting…
Samantha Walsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology. She also works in the Not-For-Profit Sector.
As someone who studies Sociology and has a visible disability (I use a wheelchair), I have always been interested in the relationship between culture and the individual (the body). I would suggest that my body falls outside the expected norm. I am often aware of strangers staring at me. I know people watch me get in and out of the car. I have had people come up to me at times and comment on things I am doing, things that I feel other people would go unnoticed for. I am also continually asked if I need help when out in public. I often wonder about how this frames my position and my body in society. As a bit of a hobby, I find ways to subvert or disrupt how my body is read or how people interact with me. I wear a lot of interesting shoes, because I feel it draws attention to a part of my body that makes people uncomfortable. Often when people ask if I need help, they will assume I want a push. My wheelchair doesn’t have push handles (specifically for this reason). I often get people to do things such as hold my coffee or purse while, I push myself. Someone once asked if I needed help while getting out of my car. I said yes and asked them to throw out my empty coffee cup. This interest in subversion and performance lends itself to a love of art and larger than life persona. I am fascinated by the work of Frida Kahlo. I appreciate contemporary art and performance. A recent fascination of mine was Body Painting. The idea of living canvas, inspired thoughts of Marchesa Casati. I applied to be a Body Painting Model for New York Body Painting Day. The application required a short paragraph about why you wanted to be a model.
I have become interested in body art and body painting as a way of reclaiming and redefining beauty. I am a woman with a disability. I have had the opportunity to do some modeling for a painting class. It is through this experience, that I have been able to understand my disabled body as both worthy and beautiful. I see participating in the body painting parade as a way to explore and shift the taken for granted understanding of the disabled body. I want all who see me in the parade to stop and think about how, the juxtaposition of art or a disabled body disrupts the taken for granted notions of disability as sickness or weakness.
I was ACCEPTED!!!
On July 14 2018, I got my chance to be living art as it were. I was a model for New York Body Painting day, held in Greenwich Village. The event was hosted by Human Connection Arts. The artist who painted me was Lisa Fried a painter and photographer from New Jersey. The event for me was about being living art. As mentioned above, I was really interested in disrupting the tensions between staring and disability. I was also curious about the tension between disability and beauty. The reactions from people were incredibly diverse.
The day started with being painted in Washington Square. This process was surprisingly interactive, because there was a crowd of onlookers for most of the day. It felt very avant-garde. I assume this must have been what the art models of the impressionist period felt like. This was my favourite part of the day. The artist painting me was very friendly and interested in hearing what I liked. She took inspiration from my mermaid tattoo. I explained that if mermaids were on land they would need wheelchairs. Additionally, the crowd for the most part seemed really engaged in watching the artistic process. Most people who were watching seemed embarrassed when I waved or smiled at them. For a lot of the process, I was naked, so I am curious if my acknowledgment that they were, there made salient that I could see them and they could see me. Lots of people both hired by human connects arts and random people took pictures. Interestingly I don’t think I am very good at having my picture taken. I tend to look directly at the camera if I want my picture taken and down or away if I am not consenting to the photo. This lead to a lot of very forced looking or posed photos. I wanted my image captured by all the body painting day photographers. However, I was less comfortable with the people at the park taking photos. It was a very Derridean experience. I wanted people to read and appreciate my image (story) one way, but really had no control over what on lookers or by standers thought.
Following the painting there was a photo shoot in the park which was largely inaccessible for someone who could not walk. All the models were asked to climb into a large fountain. This was frustrating because, I wasn’t included in the photos and by extension either was Lisa’s art. It was an interesting experience that in an environment that included so many people, and bodies a disabled body was unimagined. I brought my good friend Elisabeth Harrison with me who facilitated much of my access for the trip. I am very please to have such a good friend and ally.
After the photo shoot there was a parade and a bus ride through Greenwich Village. This was noteworthy, because it was a time, when I got to interact with both the public and the other painted models. Continuing with the theme of a Derridean experience, I elicited shock and awe from on lookers (the reaction I wanted). I had lots of people tell me how awesome I looked. People called out they wanted be painted too. However, I was also surprised how many people read me as needing help, or out of place. Lots of people asked if I needed help. Another, painted model explained he knew someone who used a wheelchair (they weren’t there; he just wanted me to know, he knew someone). There was however, another model there who used a wheelchair, she seemed very nice. An on looker called out “hey there’s a wheelchair”. Lisa the artist who painted me asked if I felt people were hesitant to look at me; when ironically, I might get looked at when not painted. I thought this was a good question and interesting observation. I am not sure if the reaction would have been different or more pronounced if I was walking vs. rolling. I appreciated the opportunity to experiment. I feel that for many on lookers I did disrupt the social position of disability, beauty and art. As with most art it goes out into the world. The arts has a story an interpretation. It lives within its time and context. I was living art. I had my goals and intentions for the day. I have my perceptions and readings of peoples reactions. I will never really know who was inspired; who was horrified and who was moved. Everyday I put my ideas and thoughts out into the world and everyday I have no control over what comes back. On a sunny Saturday on the Lower East side of New York, I put not only my thoughts and ideas out into the world but my body; and had no control over what came back. I will never forget the time I was living art. I am grateful to all involved including Lisa Fried and Human Connect Arts.
Samantha Walsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology. She also works in the Not-For-Profit Sector.
Today I tried a stability ball exercise class, at the YMCA. The reason for the class was an attempt to break the world record for most folks to ever participate in a stability ball class at once!
My friend Sarah invited me! She works at the Y and teaches a dance fitness class called arriba. I am so grateful for her friendship and the invitation. The class itself had a surprising amount of standing. I think that if I got more comfortable with the class, I could probably adapt it.
As it is I thought it was a good core and quad workout. I was pleased to see the YMCA operates from an inclusive design perspective. It was assumed people of all abilities would be participating. This was apparent in the attitude of the staff and how accessible everything was. It was so nice to show up in a space and know that you were expected. No looking for elevator key, no bizarre interactions. Nicely done YMCA.
Samantha Walsh is a disability scholar, activist and has experience within the professional service sector. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Toronto-OISE In the department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education (HSSSJE), formerly Sociology and Equity Studies. Samantha completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology at the University of Guelph. She also holds a Master’s degree in Critical Disability Studies from York University.
I would like to thank Fit is a Feminist Issue and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest blog post. Over the past two years I have been looking for, and thus experimenting with, new sports and new challenges. The impetus for finding new fitness activities was a neck injury that changed the way I have to participate in sport and activity.
To begin a little info about myself: I am 33, I am doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. I have held positions in both non-for-profit as well as post secondary institutions. I identify as a feminist and have an interest in social justice work. I also have a condition called cerebral palsy which effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around. Much of my research and written work focuses on the social position of disability as it relates to class position and intersections of identity. This blog post will venture in a new direct as a personal reflection on shifting your paradigm and identity. I hurt my neck two years ago, and had to give up many of the activities I really liked, for a time. I have been cleared to go back to most of them but, still really struggle to get back to the level of fitness I once had. It was the pursuit of new activities that brought me to rowing; and rowing which shifted the way I think about my own situation.
Row Row Row your Boat But, Wait There’s More
I took a “Learn to Row” from the Argonauts Rowing club in Toronto last year (2015). A “learn to row “is a beginner program where you literally learn to row; I was introduced to some of the rowing lexicon. I was taught how to row with the most efficient form. During this time I had the opportunity to row a single. I was also taught about the different adaptations that can be made to a boat to support a disabled rower. For example: A fixed seat so the rower is using their torso and arms, if they do not have coordination of their legs. In competitive adapted rowing it is my understanding that rowers are classified based on their ability and then their times are compared.
It was also at this time, I learned the beloved childhood song “Row row row your boat”, is delightfully inaccurate, as it should likely include the phrase “Legs, back, arms” or “Oh my hamstrings”. Rowing was a full body workout and unexpectedly profoundly challenging. I had befriended some varsity rowers during my undergraduate studies and had always thought the sport was neat. I had wanted to try but, really struggled to find a rowing club that would accommodate the fact I have cerebral palsy and cannot walk. I had shelved the interest until a neck injury, mentioned above, made it difficult for me to participate in my usual fitness activities. I was looking for something: that was a full body workout; that was social; not a team sport; could be done recreationally and able to be adapted.
Finding a New Sport Not So Easy When You Have a Disability
I started googling…An ongoing challenge I find as a disabled person whom is interested in their own fitness and recreation but, not interested in competition or team sports, is that I really struggle to find opportunities that provide: a challenging and comprehensive workout with a social component. I find it is difficult for me to simply enroll in a sport ’n social league or other recreational things because, they often assume the participant will be able-bodied. The able body is almost compulsory for joining any sort of recreational sport. For example: I have able bodied friends who are learning how to curl. This seems like a great winter sport. It’s a fun game with the tradition of a beer after. I know there is Wheelchair Curling. I have seen it on TV. However, I cannot find a league near me which supports wheelchair curling, so I do not curl.
I find often when I do find mainstream activities that welcome me and are reflexive to adaptation it is through a friend, a fitness instructor or coach who is excited to have different bodies in their class. I still find that the most common refrain for finding adapted sport is to rely on a team based program such as wheelchair basketball or a rehabilitation initiative. Moreover, adaptive sports equipment is often double or triple what an “able bodied” athlete would pay. For example: Running shoes versus the cost of a Racing Wheelchair. I long to be able to join beer leagues, workplace softball teams and drop in yoga classes. I am at a point in my life where my leisure time is limited. I am not interested in the lonely pursuits of excellene or segregated sports (these of course have their place). This is why, I was impressed to see the Argonauts advertised an adapted learn to row on their website. I was able to join for a fee and with very little self disclosure of my disability. While rowing is a sport which typically favors those of higher socio-economic status it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the club had an open-door policy in regards to ability. However, I do recognize that it is my own privilege of being employed and having a disposable income that made my adventure in rowing possible.
You Are Only New Once…Or In The case of Rowing You Are New For Almost Two Years….
As mentioned above, I took a “learn to row” in 2015 and then returned for a second year of rowing in an adaptive program in 2016. I was really focused on rowing as a way to get a full body work out. I chose to row a single with a sliding seat that was comparable to an able bodied rower. The single had pontoons on it as almost a training wheel system while, I learned to balance. At the end of the 2015 season, I met another rower, Bill (who was an single leg amputee) at an end of season party. He offered to row a double with me. In 2016, I practiced rowing both a double and a single. While I had really enjoyed rowing a single; I liked the coaching I was receiving and really appreciated the solitude that rowing a single occasionally brought (other times it was a lot of trying not to row into things). Rowing a double was a bit of a game changer for me.
The Little Voice in the Back of your head, Or If You Row the Person Speaking To the Back of Your Head
I had been very happy rowing a single. The coaching style of the rowing club was one of positive feedback and constant things to build on. I felt like there was an assumed mutual respect. I was not in a subordinate position but, rather someone happy to learn from another person whom was happy to teach. This coaching style was in part why I looked forward to rowing, it was a happy add on to the beautiful scenery and comprehensive workout. Rowing a single though had not yielded me very many social opportunities. I did not know very many of the other rowers and often only spoke with my only my coach on the dock. Additionally, early on I had told the club I was not interested in racing or competitive rowing. That I would be rowing just to get back into shape. Pleasantly, everyone seemed to respect this. To be fair though a novice rower does not usually compete.
The first night I rowed a double with Bill he made a point to introduce me to everyone he knew on the dock. Each person we encountered he would have a little story for. He would always introduce me with a little quip about losing a bet and having to row with him; or some interesting fact about me. I met a lot of different people very quickly. In the boat Bill sat behind me doing a lot of the balancing and steering. He gave me feedback on my rowing. He told me I was fast. He said I was always improving. Bill would go out in any kind of weather. Every time, I said the weather was bad, he would say something about the perfect day never comes. Often, I went with him on whatever adventure course he was set for. He introduced me to more people. He talked to the coordinator and coaches about my progress. He told me I should race. An interesting nuance or at least how I understood it. The idea of racing was not to seize elite status but, to race for myself. Race as a challenge; a way to get more involved in the club; a way to meet more people. Everyone around me was receptive to this idea. I started to work on race starts, and being able to row racing distances.
The regatta Bill and I enter was a recreational one hosted by our club. The water was awful that day. It was windy and choppy. At one point a coach remarked we would likely not be in the water but, it was a regatta. But, remember, if you wait for the perfect day you will never go rowing. We rowed. It was too choppy to do a race start. The only goal was to make it to the end and not flip the boat. Just keep rowing! We made it to the finish line. There was apparently an issue, our time was lost. I am pretty sure we lost. I was not really focusing on other boats just my boat and moving to the finish line. When we got off the water there was a reception with social to follow. I rowed a race, I met some new people and I left feeling better than I had in a long time.
Changing the Tide: Rowing as a metaphor for life
As someone who studies the workings of societies and social dynamics it is hard for me to believe that an individual’s success is not the collective sum of their social position and the resources they have access too. I understand concepts of “positive thinking” or that individuals have total control over their destiny to be deeply flawed mired with classism and an erasure of systemic oppression. While I maintain these assertions to be true; acknowledging that even the opportunity to both try, and then continue rowing is made possible through a complex network of my own privilege and resources. I am forever, grateful that the opportunity to row and to race with Bill has reminded me: not to limit myself through my own expectations. Not to wait for the perfect day to try something and despite the choppy water and the ups and downs to keep rowing best you can; even if you are scared, even if you have to stop for a time. Rowing reminded me of my own resilience and ability to change courses even when the water is rough. I am forever grateful to the great coaching staff and my doubles partner.
I’ve been thinking a lot about disability and movement in light of Tracy’s worry that the language of “sitting is the new smoking” and “sitting kills” is ableist. I agree that there are problems with our public health messaging around improving our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. (Note my use of “our” in the previous sentence. Who is included? Who isn’t?)
On my recent post on modern chair design and the role chairs play in our sedentary lifestyle Tracy commented,
“I think this point about chair design is interesting and I like the change in emphasis, away from sitting and more oriented towards the way chairs would have us sit. I contacted Shelley Tremain (philosophy of disability scholar and disability activist; see her new series on the Discrimination and Disadvantage website: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2015/04/dialogues-on-disability-shelley-tremain-interviews-bryce-huebner.html) this morning about to about it — I’ve learned a lot from her about ableist language around the “sitting is the new smoking” slogan which I for one will never ever use. She pointed out something that’s really important to note. The shift from sitting itself to the chair is an interesting shift, but it’s worth noting also that sometimes chairs (even those with fairly traditional designs, i.e. wheelchairs) actually increase mobility and make it possible for people who might otherwise not be able to get around or be active to do so. So the chair may have its limitations for some people, but for others they are a far cry from evil and in fact enable movement and activity and facilitate access to resources. Thank you, Shelley!”
You can certainly see ableist versions of the “move more, sit less” campaigns. As I’ve become more aware of ableist language in efforts meant to encourage everyday movement, I see the problems with phrases such as “sitting is the new smoking.”
First, there’s the issue of healthism. See our blog post which talks about healthism and respectability here. Caring about your health is your choice. Smoking is wrong, in part, because it harms others. (This is a bit complicated in a country with publicly funded healthcare. Presumably this gives the government some scope to encourage people to make healthier choices.) But second, and more importantly, sitting isn’t bad for everyone. For some people it’s the best choice. Think about a wheelchair user for whom sitting in a chair opens up a world of mobility and choices. That’s not unhealthy. It’s liberating.
I’ve watched how this plays out in campaigns about using the stairs.
See this poster which many friends shared with the comment, “Real super heroes don’t make ableist assumptions.” After all, not everyone can take the stairs. Indeed, when my knees are bothering me sometimes I’m not able to use the stairs even though I can bike hundreds of kilometers.
It’s certainly true that wheelchairs can be wonderfully liberating things. See the other Samantha’s post about the Warrior Dash. That wouldn’t have been possible for Samantha without her wheelchair.
But I also worry that mainstream discomfort with non standard modes of movement can keep wheelchair users inactive. The message seems to be if you can’t walk, you use a wheelchair, even if that’s not the option you’d prefer.
One of my favorite characters in the documentary Fixed, which by the way, you must watch, it’s a wonderful film, is Gregor Wolbring a professor at the University of Calgary. He uses a wheelchair but it’s not his only way of getting around.
I love the scenes of him at home, getting in and out of his car, and boarding a plane crawling up the steps and down the aisle to his seat. At home he quickly sheds the wheelchair and gets about his house under his own steam. His movement is graceful and speedy but it challenges our stereotypes of how the human body moves. Watching him board the the plane I wasn’t sure if it was the air line staff who were uncomfortable with the way he climbed the stairs into the plane or if it was me.
I’ve watched the film a few times now because I use it in class and I’ve wondered about my unease. Partly it’s fear of Gregor Wolbring falling but that’s clearly ridiculous. We’ve both been getting about using our preferred modes of mobility for some number of decades. I hope no one worries about me falling when I climb stairs.
Is it undignified? That’s clearly an ableist thought. How do standing and walking come to signify “dignity”?
It seems we have two acceptable modes of being, walking and wheeling. But wheeling isn’t the only option for those who can’t walk. Our discomfort with crawling shouldn’t be the thing that keeps people still when independent motion is the option they’d prefer.
Fixed makes the point that there is incredible variation in human abilities. We should delight in variety, not shy away from it. It urges us to resist the urge to pick one standard and “fix” everyone who doesn’t meet it.
I think this about size. So too with mobility.
Finally, there’s the worry that things that are wonderful for some people–moving sidewalks in airports, elevators in private homes, even second floor laundry–aren’t wonderful for others. How do we celebrate increased accessibility without turning into a country where we all use moving sidewalks and elevators? Yes, let people choose. That’s obviously right. But we need to encourage a culture of movement in its many forms and varieties.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time with some amazing disabled cyclists. In Australia I rode with Michael Milton, a one legged cyclist. I’ve raced crits with him, he’s not slow. He doesn’t generally use an artificial leg which surprises people and I’ve never seen him in a wheelchair. Mostly he uses his bike for transportation.
Who is Michael Milton?
Michael John Milton OAM is an Australian Paralympic skier, Paralympic cyclist and paratriathlete with one leg. With 6 Gold, 3 Silver and 2 Bronze he is the most successful Australian Paralympic Athlete in the Winter Games.
Let’s move, yes. But let’s celebrate human diversity too. It’s not all a matter of sitting or standing, taking the stairs or taking the elevator. Let’s embrace all the options.
I would like to thank “Fit is a Feminist Issue” and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest post. This will be my second time guest blogging. You can read my earlier post on wheelchairs, the warrior dash, and inclusion here. I am a fan of the blog so it is fantastic to take part. Recently, I was a model for a life drawing class (Art Model). This is a paid position where you sit for the class to draw or paint you. It is four hours. You hold the pose for fifteen minutes at a time (or more if you can do so). The class I sat for usually draws models of whom are able bodied and the model is naked. The experience of art modeling required that I become okay (but ideally comfortable) with my own body. My blog will be mediation on my body and body image related discourse.
To begin, here is some information about myself: I am 31 years old and I work in a post-secondary institution. I am doctoral candidate in Sociology. I also have a condition called cerebral palsy and it effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around. I have only been an average weight according to the BMI index once in my life and it was for two years in high school. I weight trained every day, played wheelchair basketball 3-4 times a week and my mother worked for a weight loss company. Everything in our house was portion controlled. I was 5’5 and 130lbs. Since then, my weight has fluctuated. I have quit basketball but continued to have periods in my life where I am incredibly active and then others where I am inactive. I have always had a tenuous relationship with my body. I learned very early that my body was in need of repair. Much of my time between the ages of infancy to ten were taken up by visits to physical therapist, doctors and specialist who have endeavored into attempts to cure me or make me walk. My mom eventually, in a bold move, decided that functionality was far more necessary than walking. She allowed me to get a wheelchair, put me in adapted sports and installed ramps in our house. Walking was associated with fitness and stretching; wheeling was associated with movement, play and function. My wheelchair is the best thing that my mother has ever given to me. The fact that she got me a wheelchair in face of conventional wisdom suggesting that her soul goal should be that I walk, while folks were saying “if you put your kid in a wheelchair she will never get out” speaks to my mom’s convection and depth of character. The fact is I would have never walked, or I would have walked in a way that would have been limiting (if you walk and like it good for you). The body may crave movement, but not everybody craves the same movement. In the same way some of us are runners and some are not; some of us are swimmers and some are not; some of us are walkers and some are not- I am not a walker.
I struggle (sometimes) not being a walker in a world that is designed for folks who walk. I am the unexpected body most of the time. However, I struggle more (if we can quantify struggle) with conventional beauty. As I said before I have been overweight according to the BMI index most of my life, I would not consider myself one to have conventional beauty. I could list many things I wish I could change. In the same way that my mom tried in earnest for the first part of my life to make me walk because that’s what society said was important. I have spent my whole life trying to make myself beautiful. Not spiritually beautifuland not beautiful to friends and family, but the type of beautiful, that sells cars: that manufactured beautiful that makes us by spandex underwear and teeth whitener.
How Did I Decide to do Art Modeling:
The literal story of how I became an art model is pretty basic but for context, here it is. I have a friend who does it and she said it was a good part time job. She gave me some contacts and I started cold calling. I booked a session with an art studio of which did not require a portfolio and was interested in diverse models. The director and I discussed poses I could do and we settled on something. That is physically how I became an art model.
How I intellectually became an art model is a very different story. I have recently had a paradigm shift in how I think about my own body and the standard I hold myself to. I have always thought of my body as the unfortunate container of my personality. However, in the past ten years this perception has shifted quite a bit. Having the privilege to study Sociology has given me amply time to consider and reflect on the notion of beauty. Furthermore, because of this I have come to understand my body as a tool rather than a site of work. My body lets me do all kinds of interesting things from a “warrior dash” to sex (sorry mom). This shift in thinking has been mediated by many things. For one, I had very skilled trainer who taught me about challenging the body for the sake of the challenge rather than as punishment. In addition, a friend of mine became a weight lifting instructor, and her passion and love of her own body was truly infectious. I was also a part of a cross-fit style gym with a focus on movement called StrengthBox for a year. My involvement in the StrengthBox community was incredibly transformative it changed my body and further solidified the idea of the body as a tool for entertainment and joy. There were all kinds of folks there and no one seemed particularly concerned about who was beautiful and who was not. Everyone was there for their own sake and the sake of movement. A recent unrelated injury has caused me to change my fitness routine but, the experience was truly transformative. I am not completely unburdened by social pressure to conform, but rather I seek spaces of like minded folks and opportunities that challenge me. I want to use my body in the immediate rather than wait for when it’s perfect because, just like walking, “perfect” (or that abstract concept that is) may never happen for me. Art modeling seemed like a novel experience that would certainly force me to appreciate my body or at least use it.
I had originally wanted to start my Art Modeling in the summer during the peak of my StrengthBox days and when I had a tan. However, I ended up doing it in January post injury, while my body was showing signs of injury, recovery, rest and a lack of motion. While I was not thrilled about the timing, I am pleased that I did it because it was truly a chance to live my new paradigm. I was not working on my body-my body was ready, as it has always been. It just took me quite some time to notice.
Art Modeling: the Day of…
Decorum dictates you show up at least fifteen minutes before the class. You “set the pose”: this means with your clothes on you hold the pose. While you are in the pose, someone tapes marks on the stage so you know exactly where to sit. This is also the time when lighting is staged and the artist has decided where they will sit. You then go to the washroom to take off your clothes and then you come back in a bath robe or in my case, a little sundress. You get into the pose again, and then take your cover off. However, in my case the class all decided they liked the sundress I was wearing as a cover so they would paint me in that rather than naked. One of the first things I noticed was how symbiotic the relationship between the painters and the model was. Several of the painters there said the room was too cold for the model to be naked, and so a heater was turned on. The art director set the tone and everyone knew my name and that it was my first time. Everyone addressed me by name. I had control over how long I would sit. Artists were able to comment on my pose, but I had the final say or a compromise would be reached. My imagination had been that I would have little control or voice in the situation. The overall explanation to this is that if the model is unhappy or uncomfortable it becomes harder to paint them. This was fantastically empowering because everyone thanked me for my time and said positive non-creepy things. For example they would say things like:“you sit very still”, “you are fun to paint” and “your eyes change colour”. As an aside it is actually frowned upon to objectify or say things that make the model uncomfortable. I thought about a saying I heard once about the safety of women: that theoretically “a woman should be able to walk down the street, drunk, and naked and/or alone and still be totally safe”. In life drawing class you are naked (or in a little dress) and alone (you could theoretically be drunk I suppose if you kept it to yourself but, this is not something I would try) but, you are totally safe and it feels that way.
Second, I also noticed that no one said anything about me being disabled or assumed that I was anything else but the model. I don’t know if they were just being polite, but everyone agreed I was the model and they would be painting me. I think this is another example of how access is created through relationships. While the physical space was accessible, the class had to accept me as their model, and further to this the art director who hired me had to be okay with the fact that the pose I would do would ultimately be the one my body allowed. I was worried I would be second rate to a standing model that this would be an experiment but it was not. A good model is someone who likes themselves (at least a little) and can sit for a long time.
Third, I assumed that the hardest part would be being naked. The hardest part was sitting still and letting all of me either painfully fills with lactic acid or fall asleep due to lack of circulation. Being disabled was an asset because in four hours I only got up twice (during the breaks I just stretched on the stage) and I can’t lift my legs easily, so they sat still. The pose I was doing put all the weight through my arm. Most people cannot hold the pose I was in but, even with the recent injury my shoulders are still over developed. Apparently I was fun to draw because I seemed just as interested in being painted as they were to paint me. Everyone said a lot of positive things. I didn’t smile though because I was physically uncomfortable for a lot of it- it took a lot of endurance.. I assume that this is why there are so many paintings of women who look horribly sad.
Can I Take a Picture of Your Picture of Me?
Another interesting nuance was the notion that I was being stared at but, with purpose and intent. It was one of the only times in my life that I have known people were staring at me and not been intensely annoyed. I am used to folks staring because I am disabled. But in this situation, everyone was staring at me because that was the point. It also became interesting because, the artists had to ask to take photos of me– they do this so they can work on the painting later, and I could say yes or no. I myself also had to ask if I could capture photos of their work, because I wanted these images to use as a portfolio. There is share vulnerability when the act of exchanging images is mediated through consent. This was so powerful for me because, often as a person with a disability I don’t get to control who stares and who does not. It was also interesting to be the person staring at something, in this case an individual’s artistic creation, and how that could make someone feel vulnerable.
Art Modeling From Job to Body Based Meditation
Overall, the opportunity to art model has served as an occasion to think about my body, and the interplay I live between expectations and reality. It has not solved all of my body image worries but, it has softened them. In art modeling my body is not the unfortunate container for my personality, but rather my body is interesting, valuable and useful.
I would like to thank Fit is a Feminist Issue and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest blog post. Recently I completed the Warrior Dash at Horse Shoe Valley, close to Barrie, Ontario, Canada. The Warrior Dash is a 5 km race with 12 obstacles. It is basically a mud run. (The blog’s Sam did it last year and you can read about her experiences here.) These sorts of obstacle courses are all the rage but are not typically frequented by folks who identify as disabled. I think the Warrior Dash and my experience of the event present a fantastic occasion on which to reflect on the notion of a “Warrior Dash,” who we expect in sports, and inclusion. This will be focus of my blog post.
A little bit about me
To begin here’s a little info about me: I am 30, I just recently changed jobs so now I work in a post secondary institution. However, I just left a position at a small non-for-profit (where I worked at the time of race). I am a doctoral candidate in Sociology. I also have a condition called cerebral palsy. It effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around.
It was a fluke I participated in the Warrior Dash. I am not a championship athlete; I have never been to the Paralympics. I don’t fit the “super crip” profile. I attend a cross-fit style gym but, even that is a laid back space of fitness and fun.
Further to this, I understand disability to be largely socially constructed meaning. We as a society privilege and expect a specific kind of body and marginalize anyone who falls outside of that. For example, I cannot take the subway because it has stairs I can’t get my wheelchair down. The subway is built assuming everyone who uses it will be able to walk up and down stairs. This marginalizes my body as it dictates how I move about the city. For me disability is not something to be overcome or cured it is a social position which is largely a creation of social organization but, often positioned as an individual “problem” which is pathologized through medical discourse.
So how did I end up in a Warrior Dash then?
My co-workers Steven and Gretta had a flyer about the event. I commented that I would like to do that but figured you had to be able to walk. Steven and Gretta were pretty empathic that you didn’t NEED to be able to walk and they would help. For me this was fascinating; Steven and Gretta were insistent we could all problem solve and make it accessible. This was a new kind of access for me a new way to think about inclusion. The synergy and sheer will of the individuals involved were going to create space for me. This was different than my usual imagination of access which involves modify the environment rather than a social dynamic to include a different body.
Preparing for the warrior dash: Privilege and Dignity of Risk
Ironically, preparing for the Warrior Dash did not involve intensive training but, more so a lot of e-mailing and a little bit of engineering. I contacted the Warrior Dash to let them know I wanted to do the race and see what their reaction would be? I found a man on the internet through Facebook (Chris Stoutenburg aka Stouty) who was disabled and had completed a similar race in Collingwood. He used a manual All-Terrain Wheelchair and had a team who supported him through the race. I own an All-Terrain Wheelchair (my parents had gotten it for me years ago so I could keep up with friends in snow and mud. It retails for about $8000. It is understood as a recreational piece of equipment and is therefore not subsidized through the government). It all fell into place.
The Warrior Dash e-mailed back and said that if I wanted to I could participate.They said I had the option of skipping obstacles that I felt I couldn’t do. They also said they had both competitive and recreational heats. I appreciated that they responded to me with the same approach they would of an able bodied runner. They listed facts and stats about their course. No one asked: “are you sure?”, “is it ok if you do this?” I was given the full dignity of risk to throw myself down a muddy hill just like everyone else. I was really pleased at this response. More often than I would like to admit when I attempt something new or risky I am grilled about safety; if I am allowed to do it (I am never sure who this overseeing body is: my parents, a doctor, some sort of God?); or that the organization does not think it’s a good idea. I commend the Warrior Dash for having a “come as you are” approach.
I do, however, wonder about the implicit privilege I have and if this is not the catalysis to some extent for my participation.
Let us review:
I have a full time job that pays a living wage. The result of this: I have co-workers who invite me to run obstacle courses with them. The living wage insures that I have extra money to participate in recreational activities. Statistically folks with disabilities often experience higher levels of social isolation, and poverty, there is a 45% unemployment rate in Canada of folks with disabilities.
I own multiple wheelchairs and pieces of sports equipment. A huge barrier to adapted sports is the cost of the equipment. Where as a good pair of running shoes may cost $100-$150. A sports wheelchair may cost at least $5000. In Ontario an “everyday wheelchair” is subsidized 75%. Of the cost through a government program; the individual must pay the other 25% but,that offers some support. In contrast adapted sports equipment (hand bikes, sports and camping chairs) are not subsidized, therefore recreation is often something only wealthy disabled folks can participate in. In my case my parents felt the benefit of the activity was worth the debt, so they often went without so I could have more. However, if what I have ever breaks or wears out, I can’t afford to replace it—someday the clock will run out on my sports participation too. Even, activities that require no special equipment like a gym membership come with a price tag. I love my gym but, I could not afford to be a member on a fixed income.
I have body privilege I am disabled but, in a way that is easily adapted. I bear weight, I don’t often battle illness, and I don’t struggle with fatigue. There are many instances where the nature of my condition has allowed me to pass into a social space where other disabled people would not be able to go.
I am educated, literate, and I have access to a computer. Access to meaningful education is still an issue for folks with disabilities. Literacy and access to alternative formats of texts is also an issue. I again pass because these are not my individual issues. Further to this I own a computer and have free time to search and ultimately stalk other disabled athletes to find out how they participate in obstacle courses.
A myriad of factors caused me to be able to participate in the Dash but, a large piece was the intersections of privilege within my own identity and lifestyle. The Warrior Dash may have had a come as you are attitude but, if I was going to come I would have to bring my privilege with me.
A New Type Of Inclusion: Power to the People Race Day!
The day of the race came with excitement and success. It was decided we would tie ropes to the wheelchair so it could be pulled as well as pushed. Steven invited his nephew Dan. We would work together as a foursome. Together we traversed 5km of hilly terrain, and through 10 of the 12 obstacles including but not limited to: a 60 foot cargo net climb, crawling through a dirt tunnel, climbing over a wall, jumping (or wheeling) through fire and finally a mud pit swim. It took us approximately 3 hours with various other participants stopping along the way to lend a hand. I found the simpatico of my team to be really beautiful. I pushed the wheels, someone pushed the back of the wheelchair and 2 others pulled ropes. When the hill got to steep, I got out and crawled, and someone carried the chair. When someone got tired we all stopped. The focus was finishing as a unit, not speed. Each obstacle was met with strategy; each member playing a part in spotting me. The obstacle was finished when all of our members completed the obstacle.
The question became not “can you do this?” but “how can you do this?” Together, we did things like creating human steps to get a boost up, pulling each other over obstacles and in some cases I was even lifted to where I needed to be. In the small world of our team exclusion was not an option, each situation would be manipulated to fit the abilities of the individual.
“I want to take your picture”: The reaction and erasure of inclusion
The race was an amazing day. Every competitor we past or bumped into was supportive. The air was electric and full of fun. However, while everyone was supportive and excited, folks’ reactions to me were interesting (maybe it’s the Sociology background) but, I was fascinated. Many people with the best intentions of course stared or choose to comment on my participation.
People called out things such as: “good job”, “I could never do that”, or “no excuses”. A few people stopped to ask “what my disability was” or “why we were doing this?” Often, folks directed these questions to the able-bodied members of my team. Moreover, people stopped to tell me I had good friends and or take pictures of us completing the obstacles. I understand that photos are part of this experience but, I was surprised at how many people were specifically taking photos of me and my team.
There was much talk about overcoming and perseverance.When we crossed the finish line while there was cheering for everyone; there was cheering as if we had just finished the 100 meter dash at the Olympics. I found this really interesting because the people complimenting us and snapping photos seemed to understand my participation as both novel and a symptom of my own personal strength. I am fascinated by the common sense understanding that when disabled people are absent from a social space it is due to their own personal failing and when they make an appearance it is because of some specific inner strength. In actuality I would contend that my appearance at the warrior dash had more to do with my access to resources, as well as social and cultural capital. I am delighted that everyone was so positive and helpful because, I am sure there was a time when folks would have reacted negatively to a disabled person participating in such an event (much like when women were not allowed to run the Boston Marathon). I am troubled though about the lack of acknowledgement of the connection between class, privilege and disability. I think it is central to creating equity and inclusion in sport and greater society that we begin to recognize that these entities are linked and create barriers to folks participating.
What I celebrate the Warrior Dash for
While I may scratch my head at the reasons people had for cheering me on; I certainly agree there was much to celebrate about that day. The simpatico my team created was/is a beautiful type of access which centered on the value of each person. We were able to create a symbiotic approach; that disrupted normative expectations and re-defined how obstacle courses are run and who runs them. We were total bad asses; we ran through fire! Who does that?!??!?!
The completion of the dash meant we conquered: 5 km, 12 obstacles and had a million photos taken. All worth the celebration! I am grateful for the outside the box thinking of my team, and their amazing spirit. I could not have done it without them. A new experience and a new way to “do” inclusion. Who could ask for more?
Samantha Walsh is a disability scholar, activist and has experience within the professional service sector. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Toronto-OISE In the department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education (HSSSJE), formerly Sociology and Equity Studies. Samantha completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology at the University of Guelph. She also holds a Master’s degree in Critical Disability Studies from York University. She is also the co-host of a blog “East meets West-Sam and Jo’s perspectives: A Canadian perspective on disability issues in Canada and around the world”. http://eastmeetswexx.blogspot.ca/